Disclaimer: I do not own, nor am I affiliated in any way with TAPS, Ghost Hunters or any of the people involved. The only things that are truly mine are my imagination and the ideas that come from it.
To my relief, it was only Jason who had obviously come to see what was taking us so long. He stepped back quickly, raising his hands in mock surrender at my reaction to his touch. Grasping my chest, I let out a breath and said, irritated, “Jason, you scared the daylights out of me. Don’t do that!”
Jason laughed and squeezed my shoulder. “Sorry, Kyr, I didn’t mean to startle you.” He looked at JoEllyn and then back to me before continuing, “I’m also sorry about that remark back there. That was uncalled for. The wardens sent me to make sure you weren’t upset and avoiding us.”
I laughed uneasily, wondering which “wardens” he was talking about. “Don’t mention it, Jay. And no, I’m not avoiding you. JoEllyn and I just ran into an old college friend.” I introduced Jason to Jared, who quickly put together that Jason was part of the campus investigation. As we made small talk about the campus ghosts, it became apparent that Jared had never seen the show Ghost Hunters and had no idea who Jason was.
Lou sidled across the back of the bar, straightening out bottles and wiping down the shelves. He said nothing, but gave Jared a pointed look. Jared smiled apologetically at us and said he’d better get back to work. Jason ordered three beers, which Jared quickly got for him. As the three of us turned to go, Jared suddenly called out, “Hey Jo, hold up a sec.” She turned, and he hastily scrawled something on a bar napkin and handed it to her. “Give me a call sometime, and we’ll…chat,” he said meaningfully.
JoEllyn gave him a wink and a slow smile. “I’ll do that, Jared.” She tucked the napkin into her purse, and we headed back towards our table. Leave it to JoEllyn to collect at least one phone number tonight, I thought enviously.
I saw that there were definitely more people at the bar now than there had been earlier. In addition to those sitting at tables, there were also people standing around talking, laughing and cheering for whoever was taking a turn at karaoke. As we wove our way through the people, I couldn’t help glancing at individual faces, unable to shake the suspicion that someone might have been eavesdropping. Still, for all my suspicion, all I saw were people having a good time, enjoying each other’s company and the night’s entertainment. Maybe I was just uneasy because of the number of people in the bar, I thought. I had never liked crowded places, and this was certainly turning into one.
Before we reached the table, JoEllyn stopped and laid a hand on Jason’s arm. “Jason, wait,” she said, low. She glanced at me, asking without words if we should tell him everything Jared had told us. When I nodded, she continued, “We were doing more than catching up with an old friend back there.”
Jason leaned against the back wall, listening intently to everything we told him. His eyes narrowed when I told him about my suspicion that someone at the college may have blackmailed J. W. to keep them quiet about what had happened between his son and Mary Sarah Bollinger. As JoEllyn told him what Jared said about Kevin, Jenna and Dr. DiPaolo, Jason shook his head and asked, “Did he tell you what Kevin and Jenna supposedly found in the library?”
“That’s just it,” JoEllyn said, glancing around over her shoulder. “Jared said they didn’t get a chance to say what they’d found. A couple professors overheard the conversation and came over to put a stop to it.”
I glanced around just as JoEllyn had done and leaned in close. “Jared said that the following semester, Dr. DiPaolo had been ‘let go,’ and both Kevin and Jenna had ‘transferred out.’ It may be just coincidence, but it’s hard not to jump to conclusions.” I was also wondering if the articles in the archives had been blacked out by that time or if someone had blacked them out after this incident. If we could find out that answer, we might have one more piece of the puzzle.
Jason was silent for a moment, lost in his own thoughts. Finally, he shook his head and stepped away from the wall. “We’re going to have to tell the others about this,” he began, looking grim. “But I’d rather not do it here with all these people around. Let’s just keep it on the down-low and have some fun tonight. We’ll fill the others in later.”
JoEllyn looked towards the karaoke stage and giggled. I always marveled at how quickly she could shift gears between serious mode and fun mode. The transition wasn’t as easy for me; I found it harder to quiet my mind and relax. I sighed, thinking that tonight wouldn’t be any different. Even if I could put the investigation out of my mind, I would still likely be stewing over Spook.
As we took our seats back at the table, Grant caught my eye and mouthed, “You okay?”
I gave him a brief smile and nodded, trying hard not to look at Spook. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Spook regarding me, and I couldn’t help giving him a furtive glance before turning my attention to the stage.
Amy leaned forward and asked jokingly, “So Jay, did you put a leash on Kyr like you said you would?”
I turned to stare at Jason, open-mouthed and eyebrows raised, as everyone else laughed at Amy’s joke. Jason grinned sheepishly at me before he quickly recovered and responded casually, “Nah, it turns out Kyr isn’t the one we need to worry about.” His eyes gleamed as he glanced at JoEllyn. “JoEllyn was adding a notch to her lipstick case. Even the damn bartender is giving her his number.”
“Hey,” JoEllyn countered, laughing. “For your information, I don’t wear lipstick; I wear lip gloss. There is a difference, you know.” Jason stuck his nose in the air and pretended to hold a teacup with his pinky extended. “For another thing, Jared and I knew each other in college; we’re just catching up on old times. Besides, I already have a man; I don’t need any notches.”
“Uh huh,” Spook said doubtfully, smirking at her. “Jared and Kyr knew each other too. I’ll bet he didn’t give Kyr his phone number.” He laughed as JoEllyn’s face darkened in an uncharacteristic blush as he teased her. I felt my own face reddening as well. Did he really have to point out that JoEllyn had no shortage of male attention? Once again I found myself feeling unattractive and inferior next to her. My eyes met Spook’s briefly, and his smile faded as he realized his words had hurt me.
He leaned forward to say something to me, but I turned purposefully away from him to stare unseeing at the stage. I heard Phil hiss at Spook, “Real smooth, Romeo.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him gesture angrily at her before he turned and buried his face in his hand, shaking his head.
After a few minutes I was able to forget about Spook’s comment and focus on what was happening up front, and my sour mood slowly began to lift. The performers ran the gamut from capable singers to horribly off-key crooners, and it wasn’t long before I was clapping and laughing along with everyone else. Most of the songs were upbeat, fast-tempo pop and rock songs that got the crowd cheering and dancing. During an especially raucous version of “Friends in Low Places,” I glanced around the table at the others. Amber, Amy, and Phil were singing along, holding up their drinks and swaying to the beat while Ed took pictures with his cell phone. Jason and Grant had their heads together laughing and talking, and I could just imagine the mischief they were plotting.
When I turned back towards the front to look at JoEllyn, I noticed she was facing me. She pointed towards the stage and mouthed, “Well?”
For some reason, tonight I felt unusually self-conscious about getting up on stage. “Maybe later,” I mouthed back noncommittally, lowering my eyes to my lap to avoid her questioning eyes. Without thinking I glanced over at Spook, who was sitting with his arms crossed, shaking his head and looking like he was in the dentist’s chair for a root canal. I rolled my eyes, thinking I was right about him being a spoilsport tonight. As I turned my eyes back to the stage, I noticed JoEllyn watching me; she had obviously seen me looking at Spook. She smiled knowingly and raised an eyebrow before turning to face the stage. I leaned forward to protest but decided not to waste my breath. I knew she was thinking Spook was the reason for my self-consciousness. With some irritation, I realized that her perception would be correct.
A second screech of feedback made everyone look towards the stage again. Spook’s expression changed from agonized to hopeful. “Is it finally over? Please tell me it’s over.”
I glanced over at him, irritated, in time to see Amber lean forward and laugh, “Sorry, Spook. They’re just taking a break. They’ll start again in a few.”
She laughed again as he slumped backwards in his chair, letting his head fall back and his arms fall limply to his sides as though he were dead. While everyone laughed at him, I quickly grabbed my glass, fished an ice cube out of my drink and tossed it at him, aiming for his open mouth. Of course, my aim being as bad as it is, it bounced off his chin and landed on his neck before sliding down his shirt. As he let out a yelp and jumped up to shake it out of his shirt, Jason laughed and said loudly, “Nice shot, Kyr!”
Trying not to laugh, but embarrassed at being called out, I ducked my head to hide my red face. I glanced up through my hair at Spook to see him scowling at me, but I could see a glimmer of playfulness in his narrowed eyes. He started around the table towards me; my impulse was to jump up and run away from him, but I knew I couldn’t do that with all the people standing around. Instead I cowered down in my chair as he came around behind me to playfully grab my neck. He reached over me to snatch up my glass and slipped a finger inside the back of my collar. “Anyone want to see Kyr dance?” he teased, threatening to dump the ice down my shirt.
“No!” I squealed, giggling and trying to squirm away from him. “I wasn’t trying to get it down your shirt, honest! I was aiming for your mouth…”
“A likely story,” he growled mischievously, following my every move with the glass of ice.
Grant laughed and joined in. “I agree with Spook, Kyr. How could you be aiming for his mouth? No one could miss a target that big.”
Spook narrowed his eyes and glared at Grant. “Watch it, Wilson, or you’ll be next!”
Grant and Jason were both laughing and giving each other a fist bump. Phil chimed in, “The man calls ‘em as he sees ‘em, Spook!”
Amy nudged Amber and added, “You had it coming, Spook!”
Defeated, Spook set the glass down with a thump and protested, “Fine, if you’re all going to gang up on me, I’m outta here.” He let go of my shirt and started walking away in a huff.
Afraid that he was truly upset, I leapt up and went after him, grabbing his hand and pleading, “Spook, come on. Don’t go, we didn’t mean it.”
He turned quickly, looking down into my eyes for a moment. Not for the first time, I felt a spark jump between us as he gazed at me, and I felt myself getting lost in his eyes again. His face softened, and he gave my hand a quick squeeze. “I hate to disappoint you, Kyr, but you’re not getting rid of me that easily.” He chuckled as he told me, “I’m just going to the bar.” He laughed as I felt the color rising from my neck up into my cheeks. Glancing around at the others, I realized I had just made a complete fool of myself; everyone else knew he was joking. I lowered my head and looked up at him before slowly sitting down. “Can I get you something while I’m there?” he asked kindly, still chuckling.
I picked up my glass and handed it to him, saying in a small voice, “An Alabama Slammer.” I could really use a few shots of whiskey, I thought miserably, feeling everyone’s eyes on me.
Spook raised an eyebrow at me as if to ask if I should be having another one of those, but he said nothing to me. He looked around at everyone else and asked, “Anyone else want anything?” Amber and Amy both requested refills, and Spook headed off to the bar.
To my relief, karaoke started up again right after Spook headed for the bar. The first performer was a dark-haired young woman wearing plain black jeans and a white tank top who sang–or rather wailed–a very off-key rendition of “I Will Survive.” I winced, not only because of my protesting ears, but also because that was one of the songs I had played to death after my break up with Trevor. Great, I thought. The last thing I needed was a bunch of break up songs to dredge up things I’d rather forget about, especially with all the hurt and confusion over Spook.
JoEllyn turned to me with a pained expression on her face and quietly begged, “Kyr, please get up there and show these amateurs how it’s done.”
I shook my head emphatically, quickly glancing around at the others and hoping they hadn’t overheard JoEllyn’s comment. “JoEllyn, please,” I whispered, grabbing her hand. “I’m just not up to it tonight.”
JoEllyn’s face softened, and she relented. “All right, Kyr.” She quickly glanced sideways towards the bar, and then smiled mischievously and whispered, “I understand.”
I followed the direction of her gaze and saw that Spook had returned. He handed Amy and Amber their drinks and then leaned across the table to set mine down in front of me with a gleam in his eye. “See?” he teased. “I came back.”
I gave him a defiant look and countered, “I guess I should have escaped while I had the chance.” As our eyes met, my heart began hammering so loud I was sure he and JoEllyn could hear it. I looked away and took a large gulp of my drink.
He smirked at me, and I knew it was obvious to him that I didn’t have the intention or the desire to escape. An especially loud wail from the stage signaled tank-top girl’s big finale, making Spook grimace and look towards the stage. “I’m sure I’ll survive too,” he quipped, “although if this keeps up, I’m not sure I’ll want to.”
Everyone laughed at his joke; JoEllyn caught my eye meaningfully and motioned towards the stage again. I shook my head and lowered my eyes, but not before noticing that Spook had seen our exchange. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see he was watching my with a curious smile.
Thankfully, Phil and Amber began discussing what song they should do when they took a turn, deliberately speaking louder than they needed to, to tease Spook. Apparently Amber was a Katy Perry fan and really wanted to do “California Girls,” while Phil’s taste tended towards older music, and she wanted to do something by Def Leppard or Bryan Adams. Amy and Ed instigated the conversation by throwing out ridiculous suggestions like “I’m Too Sexy” and “Disco Duck.” Grant took a swig of his beer before innocently turning to them and suggesting, “You could always do ‘Ghostbusters,'” making everyone groan.
The next few songs ended up being sad, sappy break up songs, the very ones I had listened to over and over after…I shook my head to rid myself of that thought and quickly took several more gulps of my drink. The only things that kept me from completely going over the edge into despair were the pathetically-funny, drunken performers and the witty comments flying back and forth between Jason and Spook.
After taking a few more swigs of my drink, I noticed Spook watching me seriously. I tried to ignore him and focus my attention on the next couple getting up to sing. Oh, this should be good, I thought. One girl wore a too-tight, too-short zebra-print minidress, and the other could barely make it up on stage, although I couldn’t tell if the reason was her six-inch heels or her obviously-inebriated state. I chanced a glance at Spook, who was staring wide-eyed at the stage and trying unsuccessfully not to laugh. He covered his mouth with his hand, trying to hide his amusement, but his eyes still gleamed with humor.
Throughout the entire song–“All Cried Out”–I was torn between the urge to laugh at Spook’s ill-concealed amusement at this comic/pathetic performance and the urge to dissolve in tears as the lyrics threatened to tear my heart out. At the end of the song, one of the girls hit a very off-key, screechy high note, which made Spook finally give in and double over with laughter. I began to giggle through my tears until I was half-laughing, half-crying. As I wiped away my tears before the next song, I noticed Spook wiping away his own as he struggled to get himself under control.
Suddenly, I sat up, interested, as I realized who was onstage. Jason and Grant were going to give it a shot. As their song began, I heard Amy laugh and say, “Those two are crazy; this will be hilarious.” They sang “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which made me smile. I had seen a video clip of Grant singing this song, and it had been funny. I sat back, thinking maybe their antics could bring me up out of my funk. At first, they goofed around as only they could do, but the second time through the song, when Grant hit the line, “Once upon a time I was falling in love, but now I’m only falling apart,” the lyrics hit me hard, and tears began to well up in my eyes. I clamped my fists over my ears, trying to shut out the rest of the song, but the more I tried to shut the lyrics out, the more they seemed to get inside my head and taunt me.
Finally the song ended, and everyone whooped and clapped as they came back to their seats. I dared to open my eyes as the next singer went up on stage. Took a few deep breaths, hoping this song would be a bit less heart-wrenching. No such luck. The song was “I Fall to Pieces,” sung by a tall, heavy-set man wearing a Tim McGraw T-shirt and a ten-gallon hat. Ordinarily, I would have found that hilarious; at the moment, the pathetic irony of it was almost unbearable.
My mood continued to spiral downward through two more sappy lost-love songs, and not even the drunken clumsiness of the performers could lift my spirits. By the time a middle-aged woman wearing too much makeup got up to sing, I had had enough. I glanced miserably around at the others at the table and at the people around me; everyone else was laughing, chatting and enjoying themselves, making me feel even more out of place. Halfway through the song, Spook shook his head in disgust and got up to head for the restroom. As soon as the song ended, Phil and Amber jumped up and headed towards the stage. I didn’t even wait to see what song they had decided on; I slipped out of my seat and out the back door into the parking lot.
Once outside, I took a deep breath and paced back and forth around the small parking lot. I could still hear the music and laughter coming from inside, and I gave a crushed soda can a frustrated kick. This weekend was just not turning out the way I had planned. Instead of reliving the good times and adding pleasant new memories to the ones I already had, it seemed that all the unpleasant things that had happened here had come back to haunt me. Not to mention the investigation and all the mystery and secrecy surrounding Appleton Hall’s past.
And then there was Spook. That man was harder to read than a physics text book written in Chinese. Every time I thought I had him figured out, he threw me another curve. It didn’t help that my mind went all fuzzy and my heart did crazy things every time he teased me or flipped his hair out of his eyes or…just looked my way. I leaned against the cool brick wall and groaned. JoEllyn was right; I did have it bad for Spook.
Frustrated, I shook my head and began pacing again. I willed my mind to think about Grant, but every time I tried, my mental image of Grant was pushed out by Spook. When I tried to picture Grant’s soft, short, brown hair and the playful sparkle in his brown eyes, suddenly I’d see Spook’s shoulder-length, wavy, black hair and the mischievous gleam in his deep brown eyes. When I tried to picture Grant’s warm, friendly smile, I’d suddenly see Spook’s roguish, wicked grin. Grant is steady, dependable, sweet and romantic, I’d tell myself. Then a part of me would counter, but Spook can be sweet and romantic too, and he’s also fun and dangerous and unpredictable. I leaned against the wall again, shaking my head ruefully. Why were the qualities I had thought so undesirable in Spook suddenly so appealing? And why did the qualities I had once admired in Grant suddenly seem so boring and incomplete?
As my heart and mind continued to battle, I heard the back door click and then creak as it slowly opened. I turned to see who was coming outside. Oh great. It was Grant. There was noplace I could quickly duck out of sight, at least not without being conspicuous about it, so I just stood motionless up against the wall, hoping to remain unnoticed. No such luck.
Catching sight of me, Grant sauntered over to where I stood. “Hey, Kyr,” he said, smiling. “You should have stuck around. Phil and Amber are doing ‘You Give Love a Bad Name.’ They’re not too bad.”
“Great, another love-gone-wrong song,” I muttered, turning away from him. “Just what I need to lift my spirits.”
Grant cocked his head, looking at me questioningly. “You seem a little out of sorts,” he began gently, coming over to stand next to me. “Everything okay?” There was concern in his eyes, but I could also see the ghost of a smile tugging at his lips, and I knew he was thinking about the exchanges between Spook and me.
I avoided his gaze and said nothing. A stray cat slinking down the alley stopped and turned its eyes towards us before slipping between two garbage cans and disappearing into the night. I sighed and turned to Grant, who was still gazing at me intently. Knowing he wouldn’t let me dodge the question, but not sure what or how much to tell him, I simply shrugged and replied noncommittally, “Just got a lot on my mind.”
Grant crossed his arms in front of him and nodded s though he were satisfied with my answer. That was too easy, I thought, watching him out of the corner of my eye. As though he had heard what I was thinking, he looked over quickly to catch my eye and asked, “Spook?”
Letting my breath out in a huff, I pushed off from the wall and stalked off a few feet to lean against a light pole. “Spook isn’t the only thing I think about, you know,” I said, irritated. Realizing I had just walked right into admitting that I thought about Spook, I smacked my forehead, making Grant laugh out loud. I tried to explain, “I’ve got other things on my mind too.” Oh Lord, that wasn’t much better, was it?
Still chuckling good-naturedly, Grant came over to lean against the other side of the light pole. His expression turned serious as he asked, “So what other things are on your mind? The investigation?”
I raised my eyes to his, trying to summon the thrill I used to feel when he looked at me. Nothing. Nothing at all. You should be glad you’re not crushing on a married man anymore, I chastised myself. I realized with some consternation that I was wishing that Spook had cared enough to come out and check on me. Oh, for heaven’s sake, hadn’t I just told Grant that Spook wasn’t the only thing on my mind, and now here I was wishing for him to be here instead of Grant. I sighed miserably and leaned my head back against the pole, trying unsuccessfully to see stars in the hazy sky. “That’s what my mind feels like right now,” I muttered vaguely, realizing that my words probably made no sense at all to him.
He looked up at the sky for a moment before turning his eyes to me again. “Things kind of mixed up?” he asked understandingly.
I nodded, surprised that he had so easily picked up on what I meant. Smiling to myself, I remembered that one of the things I had admired about Grant was his ability to read my thoughts and feelings. In the back of my mind, a nagging voice asked why it bothered me so much when Spook did the same thing. I shook my head, not wanting to think about that right now. “You could say that,” I responded, trying to calm my racing thoughts and feelings enough to put them into words. “I guess I’m still sort of thinking about what happened last night in the bell tower.” Not to mention what happened afterwards in my room. “I mean, I’ve heard the stories about the ghost in the bell tower and had my own experiences when I was in college, but I never experienced anything like what happened last night, nor did I ever hear of anyone else having an experience like that. So why…?” I shook my head, trying to make sense of it all.
Grant regarded me, his brows furrowed in thought. Bringing a hand to his chin, he ventured, “Well, given the secrecy surrounding what happened years ago, does it really surprise you that some of the stories might have been covered up?”
Letting out my breath, I paced between the light pole and one of the dumpsters, thinking. “I could see the administrators silencing anyone who would try to go public with a story like that, but you know that friends talk when they’re together in the dorms or at the cafeteria, and a story like that would surely be passed around. No one could stop that.” Suddenly, Jared’s story about what had happened with Kevin, Jenna and Dr. DiPaola came to mind. I opened my mouth to say something to Grant, but Jason’s admonition to keep quiet what we had discovered stopped me.
Grant caught my eye and gave me a crooked smile. “Yes, Jason told me about the bartender’s story. He didn’t give me a lot of details, but I got the gist that the wrong people overheard his friends talking about the bell tower haunting, and they may have been asked to leave.” He looked at me seriously and added, “If thatstory got around, anyone who had more than a vague encounter with the bell tower ghost might have been discouraged from sharing their experiences.
It’s easy enough to brush off someone hearing vague noises or seeing shadows, but someone finding information they don’t want getting out, that’s another story.”
I nodded, realizing he was probably right. Still, I thought if anyone had experienced anything even close to what Spook and I had, the story would have gotten around despite anyone’s attempts to keep it hidden.
As I stood there considering his words, I nervously twirled a lock of hair around my finger. When I finally glanced up at Grant, I noticed he was looking at me intently. “You’re still pretty shook up over what happened last night, aren’t you” he asked softly.
I drew a shaky breath and nodded. Realizing that my hands were trembling, I clasped them together to steady them. “I just can’t help thinking that Mary had something to do with that fire…”
“Kyr,” Grant interrupted, grasping my shoulder firmly. “Come on, you know a lightning strike started that fire; you saw it yourself. I hope you don’t believe Mary is powerful enough to make that happen.”
Logically, I knew that Grant was right, but I found myself wondering just how much she was capable of. The words of the EVP we’d captured—“Die with me”—replayed in my mind. I also thought, somewhat irritably, that Grant hadn’t been there to experience what Spook and I had experienced. Seeing that he was waiting for me to respond, I said hesitantly, “No, I suppose she isn’t.” I met his eyes defiantly before continuing, “But she certainly took full advantage of the whole situation.” My mind replayed Spook’s ordeal, and I thought about how helpless and even frightened he had looked as he clung precariously to the splintered edges of the tower floor as the fire burned around him. Tears came to my eyes as I remembered wondering if I’d ever see him again.
Grant suddenly stepped towards me and put his arm around my shoulder. I leaned against him for a moment, sniffling. When I looked up at him, he smiled and said softly, “You were really worried about him last night, weren’t you?” I knew right away what he was hinting at.
“Well, weren’t you?” I responded defensively, pushing away and glaring at him, sure that my feelings were written all over my face.
My suspicions were confirmed as his gentle smile turned into a playful smirk. “Not as much as you were,” he teased, giving my shoulder a playful punch. “Kyr,” he chuckled as I stalked away to lean against the wall. He slowly walked over to where I stood. “Kyr, why don’t you just admit that you have feelings for him? As more than a friend. You two have been dancing around each other all evening.”
I gritted my teeth against the wave of emotion that welled up inside me, not just my attraction to Spook, but also the hurt over what had happened between us the night before, added to the hurt from my break up that had finally broken through the wall I had built up to keep it inside. I was determined not to let myself be taken advantage of like that again. Tears stung my eyes as I replied forcefully, trying to convince myself as much as Grant, “No, not Spook. It would never work. He’s not the man I want.” My hands were trembling again, so I jammed them into my jeans pockets.
One look at Grant’s face told me he wasn’t the least bit convinced I was telling the truth. He crossed his arms and challenged, “Well, then, what kind of man do you want?”
My judgment clouded by two wine coolers and three Alabama Slammers, I retorted, “Maybe I’d feel differently if he were more like you.” As soon as I’d said the words, his eyes widened in surprise. I swore and turned away from him, feeling my face turning red.
Grant caught me by the arm and turned me around to face him. “Kyr, it’s okay,” he said softly, his own face flushing. “I…it’s not exactly a secret.”
I kept my eyes on the ground, focusing on the scuff marks on my sneakers, the cracks in the asphalt, the cigarette butts littering the ground, mentally kicking myself for making my crush known to him. “I’m sorry, Grant,” I muttered, burying my face in my hands. “I shouldn’t have…”
“Kyr, it’s okay,” he repeated, grasping my shoulders and giving me a little shake. “Feelings aren’t wrong. They’re just feelings. Although what you see in me, I can’t imagine.”
Finally meeting his eyes, I blurted out, “Grant, you’re perfect. You’re sweet, kind, smart, steady and…” I almost said ‘safe.’ “…Dependable. And you’re a family man. Spook is so unpredictable and hot-tempered and…prickly. He’s a loner, and he doesn’t know what he wants.”
Grant regarded me for a moment, half serious and half amused, before venturing, “I’m flattered that you have such a high opinion of me, Kyr, but I’m not perfect, not by a long shot. And I really think you’re selling Spook short.” He laughed at my doubtful expression. “He does have a short fuse, I’ll give you that. But if you’d get to know him, you’d see he has a lot of the same qualities you see in me. As for being a family man, he wants to be, Kyr, honest he does. He’s just so afraid of being hurt again that he acts tough and pushes people away.” What he said about Spook pushing people away struck a chord. The confusion and pain I felt over Spook’s rejection of me must have been written all over my face because I caught a spark of understanding in his eyes as he looked at me. Giving me a crooked smile, he asked, “Did something happen between you and Spook last night?”
I felt the color rising into my cheeks as I returned his look guiltily. He laughed softly and raised an eyebrow. Finally, I admitted, “I told you we had an argument.” He nodded, and I looked down at the ground as I continued, “Well, after we came to a truce, he kissed me.” There was no way I’d tell him anything more than that.
When I hesitated, Grant asked playfully, “Did you kiss him back?”
Feeling my blush deepen, I tried to hide a smile as I replied softly, “Yes.” My heart began pounding and my mouth went dry as I recalled how his kisses, his touch, had made me feel.
“So what happened?” Grant asked. “You were pretty perturbed with him this morning.”
I sighed as the pain of rejection twisted like a knife in my heart. “He obviously changed his mind. He said he couldn’t do this and just up and left.” I gritted my teeth against the tears threatening to fall.
Grant shook his head and groaned. “Kyr, I’m so sorry…” He put his arm around me again as he struggled to find words. “Like I told you, he pushes people away so he won’t get hurt again.” I understood what he was saying, and I could relate, but that didn’t take the pain away. “Kyr, Spook has some pretty intense feelings for you. I can see it; we all can.” I looked up at him, a part of me thrilled to hear what I had suspected, but another part ready to put up a wall to avoid the whole discussion. Grant pressed his lips together in thought for a moment before saying, low, “Just between you and me, Spook hasn’t been involved with another woman since his divorce, so for him to have gotten as far as he did with you is huge.” He smiled pleadingly at me. “Isn’t that enough to convince you to at least give him a chance?”
My heart had skipped a beat at his words. He hadn’t dated or kissed another woman since his divorce? It gave me a thrill of hope to know I had found a chink in his armor somehow. Still, his reaction had hurt me deeply, and I was keenly aware that this meant I was a rebound possibility for him. No way. I would not be his stepping stone to another relationship. I steeled myself and responded, “I just don’t want to get involved with someone with that much emotional baggage.” When Grant raised an eyebrow at me, I silenced him. “Don’t you think I have enough baggage of my own to deal with?” Grant conceded that point with a nod and was about to respond when I cut him off again with the first excuse that came to mind. “Besides, I’ve already told you, he said there could never be anything between us. He thinks of me as a little sister to tease, nothing more. No one dates his little sister.”
“Kyr,” Grant finally got a word in. “Look, I don’t know why he said that, except to keep from getting attached to you, but I can tell you, I‘ve seen the way he looks at you. He doesn’t look at you like you’re his little sister. And the way you two were going at each other tonight…Kyr…” He didn’t finish his thought; he didn’t need to. I gaped at him wordlessly, till he came over and gently pushed my mouth closed. “Give him a chance, Kyr,” he whispered. “At least think about it.”
I didn’t answer. I was too preoccupied with the idea of Spook looking at me…how? I couldn’t recall anyone—not even Trevor—looking at me the way Grant was suggesting Spook looked at me. Grant nudged my shoulder and asked, “Shall we go back in?”
I blinked at him, then nodded wordlessly. As much as I didn’t want to go back inside into that festive, raucous atmosphere, I was even more uncomfortable out here with Grant and thinking about Spook, so we headed for the door.
Grant tugged open the back door. Without looking up, I stepped through the door, then let out a yelp as I plowed right into someone. Embarrassed, I stepped back out of the doorway and started to apologize, when I glanced up and saw it was Spook. “Fancy meeting you here,” he joked, glancing curiously between Grant and me.
“We were just going inside,” I said, stupidly, then smacked myself on the forehead. What an idiotic thing to say, I thought. Of course we were heading back inside.
Spook laughed and teased, “I can see that, Captain Obvious.” Grant stifled a laugh, and I glared at him, feeling my face turning red.
Spook stepped aside to let us through, still giving me a curious look. When I didn’t move, Grant stepped through the door, still smirking. He looked back to see if I was following. I glanced uncertainly between him and Spook. Spook pulled out a pack of cigarettes and said, “I was just coming outside to have a smoke. Care to join me?” Without thinking, I grimaced. “Or at least keep me company?” he amended.
Grant gave me a wink and motioned for me to go with Spook before he headed back down the hallway towards the bar. I nodded to Spook, who smiled and headed outside.
Spook walked over to the corner of the building where there was a standing ash tray. After a moment, I followed him.
“I really hate karaoke.” He said, lighting a cigarette.
I watched him take his first drag and blow the smoke into the air. “Yeah, it’s pretty lame,” I lied. Why did I say that? He looked at me sharply, and I was sure he knew I was lying. But if he did, he said nothing.
“Is that why you’re out here?” he asked, flicking ashes off to the side as he smiled at me.
“Yeah,” I replied shortly. Well, at least that part was sort of true.
Spook chuckled and shook his head. “What some people won’t do with a few drinks in them.” I glanced guiltily at him. If only he knew what I’d just said to Grant, I thought miserably. He continued, “Do they know how stupid they look? Half of them sound like dying cows just begging to be sent to the slaughterhouse…”
I was getting a little irritated with his superior attitude, but I kept quiet as he kept berating the people participating in karaoke. Finally he realized that he was talking to himself and turned to me. “Cat got your tongue, or is something bothering you?” I stood with my arms crossed, glaring at him through narrowed eyes. “What?” Spook said, getting irritated himself. “If I said something to upset you, then speak up.”
I let my breath out in a huff and put a hand on my hip. “You know, just because you may not like karaoke doesn’t mean you need to be a killjoy and put down those who do like it.” He raised his eyebrows at me as though he were challenging me. “They weren’t all bad, you know.” And if I would have taken a turn, you’d be singing a different tune, buster, I thought.
He blew out a final puff of smoke and extinguished his cigarette in the ashtray. “Okay, some of them were pretty good,” he admitted, leaning against the corner of the building and looking down at me. “But you have to admit, there were more that just made fools of themselves.” He tried unsuccessfully to hide a smile, and I had to turn away so he wouldn’t see me trying just as unsuccessfully to hide my own.
Looking quickly over his shoulder to make sure no one else was around, he began singing—rather, wailing—“I Will Survive” in a surprisingly good imitation of tank-top girl. My face grew hot and my eyes grew wide from suppressed laughter, and I wondered how much Spook had had to drink to make him act like that. As if he knew I was determined not to laugh out loud, he began dancing an exaggerated disco routine. I couldn’t hold back, and I laughed so hard I snorted. I clapped my hand over my mouth and sat down on the parking lot, unable to stop laughing.
Spook doubled over with laughter himself and teased, “Oh, that was real ladylike, Kyr.”
I bit my lip, still giggling, but mortified over my outburst. Lord, no wonder guys didn’t ask me out, I thought.
Spook caught my eye and with some difficulty stopped laughing. “I’m sorry, Kyr,” he chuckled, helping me up and putting an arm around me. “I’ve just never seen you laugh that hard. It was kind of…nice.” I had the feeling he was going to say something else, but what?
I leaned against him, enjoying his closeness, and replied, “Well, I never knew you were so funny.” I wiped the tears from my eyes. “I can’t remember the last time I laughed like that.”
His eyes gleamed with sudden mischief. “I’ll bet I can make it happen again,” he teased, giving my ribs a quick tickle.
I squealed and squirmed, grabbing his hands and trying to get away. He stopped tickling and pulled me close in an embrace. Oh, this was not good, I thought, not good at all. Then I caught the scent of his cologne, and felt his hair brush against my face. Then I leaned back against him, thinking, no, this is good; this is sooooo good. Oh, if only we could stay like this for…
“Kyr,” Spook murmured close to my ear. His warm breath sent delicious shivers down my spine, and I hoped he’d say something more. “Kyr, you’re a terrible liar. You don’t really think karaoke is lame, do you?”
I pulled away slightly. That’s not what I was hoping he’d say. I answered guiltily, “No, I don’t.”
He pulled his arms away, and I staggered, feeling empty. “Then why did you say you did?” he asked.
I looked up into his dark eyes, unsure of what to say. “I don’t know,” I began. “I guess I just didn’t feel like arguing the point.” I crossed my arms and kicked at a weed pushing up through the macadam. “Besides, I guess I wasn’t really enjoying it tonight.”
Spook nodded as though he understood. Then his eyes sought mine, and he asked, “Any particular reason?”
Even as I felt myself drowning in the depths of those gorgeous brown eyes, I told myself, I will not tell him, I will not tell him, I will not tell him. Suddenly, I heard myself saying, “Some of the songs just reminded me of someone I’m trying to forget.” Damn Alabama Slammers are like truth serum.
He stifled a laugh and said, “Not Bret again?”
My mouth fell open in surprise. He actually remembered that detail from several nights ago? “No,” I finally stammered. “Not Bret. Trevor.” Stop it, Kyr, I told myself.
Spook laughed out loud. “Now who’s Trevor? Another rock hound crush?”
“No!” I said loudly, punching him hard on the shoulder. I winced as my fist made contact with solid muscle. Dang, he must work out, I thought. “Trevor was my fiancé. We were together for about five years before he finally told me he didn’t love me and never really had. He was in love with someone else, but she was with another guy. When she broke up with him, he just up and broke it off with me so he could go after her. They got married last October.” I couldn’t stop the words once they started rushing out. I hadn’t even told Grant the whole story, but now here I was telling Spook.
The amusement completely left Spook’s eyes as I spoke. When I finished, he reached for me. “Kyr, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know…” All the hurt and humiliation I had successfully buried for so long burst forth like a flood, and I buried my face in his chest and began sobbing. His strong arms surrounded me as he whispered words of comfort into my hair.
After several minutes, my sobs abated, and I pushed away, embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” I blubbered. Oh, I must look a sight now, I thought, but he seemed not to notice. “Those damn break up songs…this whole weekend…the drinks…” I shook my head, unable to put together an appropriate apology.
Spook interrupted, “Kyr, there’s nothing to apologize for. I knew something was bothering you in there.” He put his hands on my shoulders. “I understand. Believe me, I understand.” And I knew he did, after what his wife did to him…oh, Lord. It felt like a wrecking ball hit me in the chest when I remembered the horrible words I’d said to him that night at the Berkeley mansion. I had been so mean to him, and now he was being so sweet to me. JoEllyn was right; he wasn’t a nasty; I was. I turned to him, horrified. He seemed to read my thoughts and smiled ruefully at me. “Forget it, Kyr. It’s forgiven, it’s over, leave it at the mansion.” How could he forgive me for what I’d said? He pulled me close again and chuckled. “I’ve got a thick skin. And as Grant so tactfully pointed out to me, I probably deserved some venom for the way I treated you on that investigation.”
I gave him a watery smile and leaned into him again. Things didn’t seem so awful anymore. He held me for a moment, then asked, “Would you like to go back inside and laugh at some more karaoke performers?”
I half giggled and half cried as I considered. As I looked into his eyes, everything Grant had said about him came rushing back to me. I was still hurt over what had happened last night, but knowing some of the story behind his actions had softened the pain a bit. As I listened to the music and laughter still echoing from the bar, I realized that I really didn’t want to go back inside. Finally, I told him, “I’m really not in the mood for karaoke tonight. I may just head back to campus and call it a night.”
Spook raised an eyebrow and responded firmly, “Not by yourself, you’re not. We’ve been through this already, Kyr.” The hardened look I knew so well was in his eyes again as he stared at me.
I returned his gaze steadily, challenging him, although I had been secretly hoping he wouldn’t let me go alone. “I can take care of myself, you know.”
The corner of his mouth turned up slightly, and he growled, “Maybe you can, maybe you can’t, but I’m not going to take a chance on you having to prove it.” He brought his hand up to my face and stroked my cheek with his thumb before saying softly. “Wait here, I’ll go in and let the others know we’re leaving.”
Suddenly realizing what it would look like if we left together, I met his eyes doubtfully and opened my mouth to protest. “But they;ll think…”
Spook laughed out loud. “Oh, Kyr, they’ve all been trying all weekend to get us together. Let them think what they want to.” He cocked his head, his eyes gleaming mischievously. “I never thought you were the type to care what other people thought of you.”
I lowered my head and relented reluctantly, sure I’d never hear the end of it from JoEllyn, but he was right. Besides, I couldn’t deny that I was hoping something might happen between us. At least something that didn’t end like the previous night.
Spook headed insde, and I waited for him, leaning back against the building and gazing up into the night sky. Clouds were moving in, and the air felt more oppressive; I was sure a storm was brewing. I shuddered, recalling what had happened during the previous night’s storm, and I was glad we wouldn’t be in the bell tower tonight.